As More Homes Show Unsafe Levels Of PFOA, Work Continues To Understand Its Spread

Jun 14, 2017

Recent test results showing almost a dozen new residences in Bennington with PFOA levels above the health standard prove that the chemical is still moving through the environment. The state is struggling to understand just how long it will be before any homeowner within the area of contamination can be assured that their water is safe.

PFOA is an industrial chemical that's been linked to testicular cancer, high cholesterol and thyroid disease, and it's now been detected in almost 300 wells around Bennington.

The company Saint-Gobain owned the nearby Chemfab factory, where PFOA was baked on to fabric to waterproof it.

The emissions were sent up through the smokestacks, and for years, scientists now think, PFOA rained down on to the soil around the plant.

The Department of Environmental Conservation recently retested some of the water wells in Bennington and found about a dozen new homes were above the health standard for PFOA.

And state officials say results from the latest water tests, that turned up unsafe levels of PFOA in more than a dozen new wells, highlight just how much more needs to be done to understand what the future holds for this corner of Bennington County.

"We're still trying to understand how it moves through the soil," says John Schmeltzer, a hazardous waste site manager with the Department of Environmental Conservation. "It could be years, it could be decades before we know."

Schmeltzer says this spring's wet weather might be moving the PFOA around more, and he says there's no way of knowing how people's wells will be affected over time.

"We're getting a better understanding of how it moves and how long it's going to take, but we still don't have a good handle on it," he says. "If you're an optimist you might think that after 20 years we're at the worst, but I don't think we have enough information to say that, at this time."

Travis Weils, left, and John Leonhardt of QCQA Drilling Services work on a test well on the Bennington College campus. The campus has been working with the state to understand how PFOA is moving through the soil.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

All of this uncertainty has created a lot of anxiety for people around Bennington.

In some cases, water is tested and deemed safe, only for the state to return six months later with news that the PFOA level is above the safe drinking water standard.

"We're still trying to understand how it moves through the soil. It could be years, it could be decades before we know." — John Schmeltzer, Department of Environmental Conservation hazardous waste site manager

David Bond is a professor and associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, and he's been leading an effort to use the school's resources to both explain the complicated science to people who are affected, and address their concerns.

"When this whole thing started I got together with colleagues and we asked an open question, 'What role does a college play when a nearby environmental disaster like this is unfolding?" Bond says.

Bennington College this month was awarded a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to continue working with the nearby community on the PFOA contamination.The college won a $90,000 NSF grant last year.

Bond says there will likely be a lot more questions to answer as future water tests track the movement of PFOA through the environment.

"We try to orient our project not to necessary duplicate the work of the state, but to answer questions the community has that aren't being directly addressed by the state at this moment," says Bond. "The state rightly is focused on issues of public health, and exposure through drinking water. We can ask a number of adjacent questions, and hopefully give citizens and students the tools they need to make their way though that science, and come out better informed and with a better sense on how to protect water resources in our region."

DEC Hazardous Waste Site Manager John Schmeltzer rolls some soil between his palms to test for the amount of clay. The state is doing soil samples across Bennington to better understand how PFOA is moving underneath the ground.

The state still wants Saint-Gobain to pay for the municipal waterline extensions that would bring clean water to the affected homes, but the two sides haven't been able to reach an agreement yet.

In the mean time the company is installing water filters on any home that tests above Vermont's safe drinking water standard, and they say they'll install the carbon filters on these new homes.

And the state says it will continue testing wells until there is a better understanding of how the contamination is spreading beneath the ground.

The next round of tests will be held in the fall.